Obama’s Reluctance to Intervene in Syria Isn’t Puzzling

The president’s unwillingness to antagonize China and Russia is perfectly justified.

President Barack Obama listens during an economic policy meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, September 11, 2009
President Barack Obama listens during an economic policy meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, September 11, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

The New York Times‘ Nicholas D. Kristof — “no hawk” — joins those calling for American intervention in Syria. He laments in Wednesday’s column that “there’s a growing puzzlement around the world” about President Barack Obama’s reluctance to use military force to remove Assad from power.

Civil war has raged in the Middle Eastern country for seventeen months. An estimated 20,000 have perished in the regime’s attempts to suppress the uprising as well as in confrontation between loyalist and rebel forces.

Kristof doesn’t want the United States to invade Syria. “But we should work with allies to supply weapons, training and intelligence to rebels who pass our vetting.” It’s quite possible that’s happening already though. David Ignatius wrote in The Washington Post last month that “the United States and its allies are divvying up the pieces of an increasingly potent covert action program — with the Saudis and Qataris providing money and weapons, America providing communications and logistics and the Turks, Jordanians, Israelis and Emiratis providing intelligence support on the ground.”

Short of invading the country, what more the United States could do to aid the opposition in Syria is deploying air and naval forces as it did in Libya last year to create civilian “safe havens” and impose a no-fly zone.

In February, America’s top military officer General Martin E. Dempsey cautioned against imposing a no-fly zone in Syria, pointing out that it would be “a different challenge” from Libya “geographically. It’s a different challenge in terms of the capability the Syrian military.”

They have a very sophisticated, integrated air defense system, for example. They have chemical and biological weapons.

The former the regime amply demonstrated in June when it shot down a Turkish fighter plane that it said had violated its air space. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is supposed to have considered using chemical weapons but according to Reuters, the Russians convinced him otherwise. They and the Chinese have so far blocked efforts to put international pressure on Assad in the United Nations Security Council.

It is for fear of antagonizing two great powers and involving the United States into another country’s war, one in which, as Daniel DePetris wrote for the Atlantic Sentinel today, the opposition has also begun to commit human rights violations, that Obama rightly shrink from doing more.

However, Kristof sees two strategic imperatives for military action. “First, the longer the fighting goes on, the more it destabilizes the region.” The conflict in Syria has morphed into a proxy war between Shia and Sunni Muslims in the region with Assad’s allies Hezbollah and Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar on the other. “The longer the war persists,” writes Kristof, “the more risk of spillover into Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.” Sectarian violence has already been reported in the former while Shia-Sunni clashes and the possibility of Kurdish secession should keep policymakers in Baghdad up at night.

Second, there’s Assad’s chemical weapons which “could end up in the hands of jihadis or on the global black market.” As with the possibility of spillover however, this is a threat that can be contained without involving the United States directly in Syria’s war. Even the Russians, who are battling an Islamic insurgency of their own in the Caucasus, have a stake in preventing Syria’s chemical weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists.

Post Assad, there can be an international effort to retrieve the weapons. Trying to do so in the midst of the conflict will be messier and possibly complicate relations with the rebels, some of whom may hope to secure chemical weapons to tilt the balance of the war in their favor.

In conclusion, Kristof argues that “Syria, like Libya, is a rare case where we can take modest steps that stand a good chance of accelerating the fall of a dictator.” It isn’t. The situation isn’t “rare” even if the United States stand a “good chance” of hastening Assad’s demise — which, if they’re unwilling to deploy ground forces, is doubtful.

The very complexities of the situation which Kristof references as reasons to intervene — sectarian tension and the risk of regional spillover — should convince the United States that perfect inaction is preferable here. The country’s interests aren’t threatened. No American lives are at risk. Hezbollah and Iran, both American foes, will lose in any event because even if Assad survives, he won’t be able to be of much help to either, assuming that he can keep his country together in the long term.

Support the Saudis and the Turks in whatever they’re doing but don’t turn this into another Lebanon where the United States, in the 1980s, tried to do good but underestimated the challenges of pacifying a sectarian conflict and lacked the resolve to see it through.

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